The Violence Against Women Act as Loving-Kindness
Last month was Saint Valentine’s day, a perfect day to reflect on the multi-dimensional feeling called love. There are many legends about Saint Valentine, but my favorite is that he refused the Roman Emperor’s ban on marriages, implemented due to the imperial fear that married soldiers would not fight in the battlefield. To me, this legend says something about the value of love regardless of state sanction or patriotism, and is even anti-imperial.
This is a far cry from the modern Valentine’s Day, generally populated by second-rate gifts purchased from corporate shopping outlets. This encourages an expression of love through an exchange of things bought on the open market, interwoven with corporate capitalism. It is about how manufactured objects are meant to facilitate interpersonal love, imbued with our desires for reciprocity. This is a crude understanding of love, one that is filled with craving and aversion.
In Theravada Buddhism there is the teaching of the Four Divine Abodes (brahmaviharas), where four different flavors of love are practiced and their nuances explored. Each brahmavihara (metta, karuna, mudita, upekkha) has a “near enemy” and a “far enemy.” The near enemy is a mental state that appears similar to the brahmavihara and can be mistaken for it, but is actually a misleading state. The far enemy is simply the exact opposite of the brahmavihara. For example, metta’s (loving-kindness) near enemy is selfish affection, while its far enemy is ill-will. Karuna’s (compassion) near enemy is pity, and its far enemy is cruelty. Mudita’s (empathetic joy) near enemy is exuberance and its far enemy is resentment. Upekkha’s (equanimity) near enemy is indifference and its far enemy is craving and clinging.
We can see that the corporate idea of Valentine’s Day is suitable for exploiting many of these near and far enemies through our cravings, expectations, self-doubts, and jealousies. Love can already be a complicated thing without these additional confusions!
At the end of February, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was renewed in Congress despite much Republican resistance to extending VAWA’s life-saving protections to immigrant, LGBT, and Native women. Watching politicians often makes me think about the brahmaviharas and their near/far enemies. I wonder how often the refusal to protect a member or group within our society (which amounts to a refusal to acknowledge them as human beings) comes out of a far enemy state of real ill-will, cruelty, resentment, or aversion. I also wonder how often it comes from a near enemy state, where a politician might actually believe they are helping or being kind somehow.
When I think of love as expressed in contemporary society, I think of Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, where he argues against Freud’s idea that human eros needs to be repressed in order for society to exist. Freud sees eros as a dangerous instinct, potentially destructive if allowed to roam freely, and that its repression in the form of assimilation to social norms (including economic) is essential. For Marcuse, ethical, non-repressive expression of eros (which for him seems like a combination of sexual energy and a more Platonic version) has the potential to create a non-repressive society, where “the human body [is] an instrument of pleasure rather than labor.” This can include but is not limited to sexual pleasure. It can simply be the pleasure of being with each other as human beings in any activity—work, play, or creativity.
In my mind, I see a kind of relation to the brahmaviharas, an expression of love that is kind and wise, one that refuses repression of our basic life energy while being ethically mindful of precepts such as non-harming. Through Marcuse, I can envision an entire community or society where people practice this. It would be a place where we nurtured all expressions of life.
VAWA is an expression of love and care for women facing violence, now and in the future, who feel they have nowhere to turn for help. It is unfortunate that we need to ask the government to give and protect rights that people already inherently have. That is why, in the footsteps of Saint Valentine, it is important for us to also create community-based solutions that implement love (personal, interpersonal, social, economic) regardless of whether the emperor supports it. Because at the end of the day, the emperor still wants us to buy his Valentine’s Day tsotchkes and fight for him in the battlefield.